Thinking Out Loud

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What Ham Radio Could Learn From RPGs

Ever since I was a kid, I was peripherally interested in amateur radio. I think it was the idea of being able to talk to people from all over the world in the days before the Internet. But back in the day, Morse code was a requirement for even the most basic license, and I didn't have the focus to self-teach it, so that interest went on the shelf.

As an electrical engineering student who's interested in power grid stability, infrastructure resilience, and is a little paranoid about solar flares, I've circled back to ham radio from an emergency preparedness point of view, and lo, there is no longer a Morse section to obtaining a license. Because of logistics, I won't be able to take the exam for a few more months, but when I do, I'll be sitting for both the introductory Technician class license and the more robust General class license all in one go. (Heck, if I get bored, I may as well go for the ultimate Amateur Extra ticket—I have the time.)

Now, let me tell you: the vast majority of educational materials for teaching yourself amateur radio suck. They almost all start out like this:

  1. What is Ham Radio?
  2. Why you should want to learn Ham Radio.
  3. If you want to q your az, you have to 7 your kebabble in the 4JQ9.
  4. Eksim83nF
  5. .-- - ..-.

They're speaking in tongues! The Operating Manual for Amateur Radio looks like a telephone book that hasn't been updated since the edition I thumbed through as a child in the 1980's. One privately-authored manual that our library has just jumps into listing exam questions - no explanations. I've even considered starting a vlog to document my self-teaching journey and teach others because I'm not even a ham yet and I can probably already teach ham better than you. After plugging away for a few weeks, I've managed to find some better resources, and I've noticed some patterns that resonate with my experiences in the traditional tabletop role-playing game (RPG) community, and I think I can share some ideas that could help everybody:

(For the uninitiated: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the US government agency that makes the rules and issues the licenses. American Radio Relay Leage (ARRL) is the nationwide club/lobbying organization that administers the licensing exams, wants to get more people into ham, and negotiates with the FCC on behalf of amateur operators.)

A few months ago, the ARRL put out a survey, asking if they should request that the FCC create an easier 'Entry Level' license below Technician class. They're wringing their hands that not enough people under 30 are learning ham radio, and what can be done about it?

The one useful publication from the ARRL that I've found so far is FCC Rules and Regulations for the Amateur Radio Service. It actually explains what the rules are and how they're relevant to you, the ham operator, before reprinting the full legal text of the legislation. Here's my supposition for why this one manual is useful: most hams are hams, but most hams are not lawyers. The other ARRL manuals are written primarily as references for licensed hams, with only an afterthought given to n00bs, so they jump right into the jargon without explaining anything, but since most hams don't have the background to unpick the language of federal code but the FCC rules nevertheless apply to them, the FCC Rules book has to sit down and walk everyone through it from the beginning.

The aroma that I get off this whole thing is that ham radio as a community and culture is mostly passed on in person, from master to apprentice. If everyone sitting for the exam learned the jargon from their Uncle Elmer, there's no need for the manual to revisit it, just review Ohm's Law, have a little common sense, and away you go. But if you never had an opportunity to apprentice with an experienced ham, you're stuck. 'Oh, you don't already know the difference between a Yagi and a half-wave dipole? Maybe this isn't the hobby for you.' And I bet that many people who do manage to get their license by self-study probably find themselves unwittingly stepping on toes and find the community unwelcoming and unhelpful because the culture is dominated by old codgers who go by the unwritten 'way things have always been done'. Even if you get your license, there's a lot more about 'doing ham' that the manuals just don't even attempt to teach.

The role-playing game culture has been (and sometimes still is) like this. You have the alpha-nerd who buys and reads the manuals and knows all the rules and becomes the gamemaster to coach the other players along until one of them is ready to ascend. You have these long-running groups and inside jokes and expectations that only make sense in the context of how the hobby has evolved over the past several decades. You join your first group, you're all excited, 'Hey, I'll play a monk!' and everyone looks at you with disdain and you know you're never going to feel welcome, and it takes a lot of determination to overcome that initial social cost when you're likely not super social to begin with.

There are more ways that ham radio and RPGs seem like they should appeal to the same sorts of people. Both hobbies rely on a lot of math and a lot of legalese rules, but they absolutely demand being social in order for them to work. Both are struggling to stay relevant in the face of other technology and entertainment options that are, frankly, a lot more user-friendly and welcoming. Both can be cheap to get into, but often end up costing a lot if you want to take it seriously. Both are stereotypically white, male, suburban, middle-class hobbies that have often not been inclusive to women and minorities. The "friendly local games store" was the RPG equivalent of RadioShack, then RadioShack became all about cell phones and the FLGS became all about collectable card games, then RadioShack went bankrupt and the FLGSs were crushed by Amazon, so both hobbies have in a sense become homeless.

But what RPGs appear to have realized and ham radio appears not to have realized is that the number of people who are willing to be passionate about this hobby are too diffuse for the master-apprentice propagation model to work for very long. There has to be a way for someone to just hear of it, stumble across a book or a website, and start doing it without having to learn all the unwritten rules of the culture from an experienced master. The old RPG manuals sucked and assumed too much prior knowledge, in much the same way that the ARRL manuals suck now. RPG manuals have gotten much better about being both a didactic introduction and an ongoing reference for experienced players. It's often small and simple things, like defining acronyms before you use them. Layout and order of presentation that has a logical flow and makes things easy to find without always consulting an index. Not assuming the reader has a ton of prior experience.

It appears to be working. Even though other electronic entertainments expand exponentially, the market for traditional RPGs stays strong and continues to grow. Granted, there are a lot of differences: you don't need a license to run an RPG. There's no one League moderating everything and dominating the publication of official manuals and training materials. People who publish RPGs expect to make a profit, and have different investment streams to hire better writers and illustrators. Here are my key points:

  • You're a hobby that's struggling to get new blood, competing for a narrow demographic of people who are both mathy and verbal and have a bit of disposable income. Learn from other hobbies that deal with the same thing: evolve or become the irrelevent domain of cloistered hipsters.
  • If you want new blood, you've got to lower the costs, and I don't mean money. There's a social cost, there's an intellectual cost, there's an access cost. Part of those costs are generated by rules and regulations and can't be controlled very well, but some costs are in the culture which could be much better controlled. What you're offering has to be more compelling than the alternative.
  • You've got to create multiple avenues of entry. New players come to RPGs by being introduced by friends, because they just picked up a book in a store and could effectively teach themselves, because they were exposed to the concepts in other media, because of celebrity evangelists... People who got into ham were intoduced...how? If it's dependent on knowing someone already in the hobby, the seeds can't spread very far. How can you get the hobby in front of people that aren't in the hobby? There was Frequency, and...? Are there any good webcomics about ham that aren't all inside jokes? How about this: instead of a fox hunt to find a hidden transmitter, you get [actual cool celebrity] to sit out in a tent with a local coordinator. At specified intervals, [actual cool celebrity] will give out clues to their location, and in the meantime the participants can chew the rag with [actual cool celebrity]. The first team to reach them gets to hang out the rest of the day with [actual cool celebrity], so [actual cool celebrity]'s fans will be clamoring to ride along with hams for a chance to meet their idol. Maybe instead of trying to create an entry level license, what about some honorary license to celebrate great communicators in other fields? There are so many other possibilities for outreach and engagement with different segments of the community.
  • You've got to write better manuals. If you want it to be accessible to the uninitiated, you've got to commit to that for the entire length of the volume, not just switch to acronyms and jargon in chapter 3 without any guide or transition. (I'm really serious about this.) RPGs have shown that a good manual can be both a self-teaching tool for the novice and an enduring reference - if I'm going to buy a book, I want to be able to keep using it all the way from the time I know nothing to the time I'm no longer interested in the subject. I can tell what you've got was written by an unpaid committee selected for their expertise and enthusiasm for ham radio and not for their skill at writing or teaching, but...couldn't you outsource and collaborate to the ham community? That is what you're supposed to do best, right? Maybe get a solid wiki going?

I dunno, this isn't that much about solutions from RPG experience as I thought it would be. Here's what it is: Nobody invited me to get interested in ham radio, I'm trying to break in from the outside, and it's like a walled, gated community surrounded by a labyrinth with "Keep Out!" signs and barbed wire, and from over the wall I can hear you guys saying to each other, "Why doesn't anyone come to visit?" Other hobbies have had a similar image of impenetrability and exclusivity and managed to overcome their waning relevance. They had to change to do it, it caused schisms and alienated parts of the old fanbase, so they went off and made their own clubhouse that's as impenetrable as ever while the rest of the hobby moved in a more open direction and is enjoying massive success. You could stand to learn from that.

Dice and Ham
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